“The elements have stayed more or less the same,” says Phylis Satin, starting to explain why WAVE, the shop she’s run in New Haven for over 25 years, is like its namesake. “Yet they’re also always changing. There’s this consistency, but there’s a flow to it.”
The other word in WAVE’s title is equally illustrative: Gallery. People may commonly refer to the store as a gift shop or a boutique, but “gallery” fits it best. There’s an artistic sense to the place, a curatorial presence defined by Satin’s sensibilities but augmented by the tastes and savvy of its long-serving staff (including Debbie Fillos, who’s been with the store 10 years, and Renee Rivers, who’s worked with Satin on and off for 30). There’s also the location, a block away from Yale’s two major art galleries.
Then there are the colors—vivid reds and yellows. Sparkling silver and prismatic diamonds. WAVE is an explosion of color. Even the stark black and white inspirational-message boards (produced by the Pennsylvania-based Primitives by Kathy Inc.) which dominate the entryway have a high-contrast kick to them, with their appeals of “Call Your Mother” and “It’s a Wonderful Life After Coffee” and (one which applies to so many WAVE fans) “Color Outside the Lines.”
It began on College Street in 1985, and moved to its current Chapel Street location 18 years ago. The gallery has always attracted art-lovers as both the providers of its specialized products and as its customer base.
“An initial focus,” Satin explains, was “made in America, creative expressions from largely local and regional artists.” But the store’s never held fast to one overriding style or rule, unless that rule is that “it has to feel like WAVE.” As Satin puts it, “I try to appeal to someone who’s less of a mall shopper.”
For a few years, there was a second WAVE store on Whitney Avenue. There was then one in Newport, Rhode Island. Satin has since renamed that shop Twig, partly because she learned that “there’s only one WAVE. WAVE is more eclectic, because I think people in New Haven are more eclectic.”
Variety and unpredictability are two of the joys of shopping here, and somehow, these actually make the experience feel more pragmatic. There’s such a mix of interesting objects that they seem to be placed in a realistic way—you can imagine what a ceramic vase, or a butter dish shaped like a boat, or birchwood salad utensils might actually look like in your own home.
Some items are so much a part of the WAVE aesthetic that they’ve become part of the gallery’s permanent collection: objects such as the “story people” or “flying ladies” figures, or the classic Alessi teapot with its bird-shaped whistle, or the landscape oil-paintings of area artist Will McCarthy.
But WAVE is more than décor. A few years ago, it started selling clothing. When an ice cream store down the street closed, it got into the gourmet chocolate business. The back end of the store is devoted to several racks of greeting cards. “Some people head straight for the cards,” Satin says. “They don’t know we do anything else. I think we probably have the greatest collection of cards downtown.”
Items range in price from a couple of dollars for a slice of any of the dozens of handmade soaps (embedded with images of everything from cats to stars to smiley faces) to thousands of dollars for a diamond bracelet or a McCarthy painting. Next time you go into WAVE, think “gallery” and not just “gift shop.” You’ll have a whole different experience.
1046 Chapel St., New Haven (map)
Mon-Wed 10am-7pm, Thurs-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-6pm
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.